Turkish authorities announced Monday they are expanding an ongoing investigation into allegations of human trafficking leveled against a local municipality run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), adding to mounting public anger over endemic corruption and a weakening economy.
The municipality organized tours to Europe for people who wanted to leave the country, providing them with special visa-exempt passports in exchange for large sums of money, in what opposition lawmakers charge is a state-sponsored illegal migration scheme.
The government said it was investigating six more municipalities, including several run by opposition parties, on similar charges.
The scandal erupted in early March after it emerged that of a total 45 persons sent to Germany in September 2020 by the AKP-run Yesilyurt municipality in southeastern Turkey as part of its “project to raise environmentally conscious individuals,” only three had returned. The group had traveled on “grey” passports issued to Turkish citizens who take part in government-sponsored activities overseas.
The government launched an investigation, with one deputy governor and three other bureaucrats suspended from their duties so far. Details only began to fully emerge last week as various people involved in the scam began to speak out.
Sevilay Yilman, of the pro-government Haberturk daily, published excerpts of her conversation with a man who went on the junket in an April 19 column. The man, who said he was employed as a construction worker in Germany, presumably off the books, claimed one of the main organizers of the scheme was a former AKP mayor in his native Bingol province also in the mainly Kurdish southeast. The man, identified solely by his initials B.H., said, “Everyone who lives in Bingol knows this is the way to get to Germany, so long as you have 6,000 euros.” The man continued, “There are of course suckers who cough up 20,000 euros.” The Yesilyurt scandal was only the tip of the iceberg. “Between 2019-2020, at least 450-500 people who I still see here [in Germany] were spirited out of Bingol in this way,” the man said.
German authorities have reportedly launched their own investigation into the activities of a company in Germany run by a Turkish man named Ersin Kilit, who is implicated in the fraud. Kilit denies any wrongdoing and has pointed fingers at the AKP.
The human trafficking charges come amid a campaign mounted by opposition parties demanding that the government explain where some $128 billion in Central Bank reserves went after it was thought to have been spent to prop up Turkey’s ailing currency by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, former Economy Minister Berat Albayrak.
Albayrak resigned from his post last November a day after Naci Agbal, a former finance minister, was tapped by Erdogan to head the Central Bank. Agbal began raising interest rates and the lira began to rally, but he was sacked last month with some alleging that this was because he was investigating the fate of the $128 billion in reserves that Albayrak is accused of having burned through over the past two years.
Erdogan has angrily rejected the claims, and prosecutors have filed charges against the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for hanging banners and posters that read “Where is the 128 billion?” on the grounds that these constituted an insult to the country’s president.
Erdogan suggested that the money had been spent on combatting and mitigating the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with Turkey now second in the world in terms of COVID-19 cases per capita, with some 55,802 cases reported on April 18 despite a raft of new restrictions, the explanation rings hollow.
It hasn’t helped that Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan’s own efforts to battle the pandemic were allegedly crafted to enrich herself. She has yet to formally respond to CHP lawmakers’ claims that her ministry awarded contracts to buy 9 million liras ($1.1 million) worth of anti-COVID-19 sanitizers to a company she jointly owns with her spouse.
Oya Ozarslan, who is the Turkish chair of Transparency International, the global graft monitoring agency, noted that Turkey currently ranks 86 (with a score of 40) among 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. Compared to only seven years ago, the country dipped by 33 levels in its ranking and by 10 points overall. “Corruption has always been an issue for Turkey, but this rapid decline is very concerning. Over the years, the type and scale of corruption may have also significantly changed to grand corruption from petty [cases], and with the recent decline in the economy, people are becoming more susceptible to corruption issues,” Ozarslan said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.
Disaffection with the government has been sharpened by the pandemic, notably as a result of the initial discrepancies between the number of cases reported by the Ministry of Health and those tracked by civil society. The uneven application of pandemic rules has added to public resentment, Ozarslan observed. While the AKP has organized a series of party congresses across the country and allowed its associates to organize funerals and other events in violations of government rules in the midst of the pandemic, “tens of thousands of people had to close their shops, lost their jobs and a number of people were even driven to suicide. This created a feeling of deep injustice,” she added.
Yet during its nearly 20 years of uninterrupted rule, the AKP managed to survive a string of corruption scandals, most notably in 2013 when a far-reaching probe unveiled links between Erdogan’s inner circle, Turkish state lender Halkbank and Iran’s multibillion-dollar sanctions-busting oil-for-gold trade. Halkbank is in the dock in a New York federal court over its central role in the scheme. Erdogan’s biggest worry is not the size of the fine the state lender is likely to be slapped with as much as what further revelations jailed Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, who signed a plea bargain with the prosecution, is likely to offer about Turkey’s ruling elite.
Ayse Cavdar, a Turkish anthropologist based in Berlin who has closely studied the AKP, noted that “the prevailing sentiment until recently within Erdogan’s base was that ‘they are not stealing for themselves but sharing the riches with us.’ The prevailing sentiment now is that 'what is stolen is no longer coming back to us,’” Cavdar noted.
As joblessness and inflation — and resulting poverty — continue to spiral, the AKP’s poll numbers are moving in the opposite direction. The withdrawal of government subsidies for low-income people hit by the pandemic has aggravated life for many. (The majority of the people who bought their way to Germany are believed to have gone to seek employment.) A survey conducted in March by Metropoll, an Ankara-based polling outfit, suggests that if an election were held today, the AKP would win 31.3% of the vote. That’s still 12 points ahead of the CHP but not enough to form a governing majority with Erdogan’s nationalist allies, the National Movement Party, which scores 7.8%. A bloc of opposition parties jointly musters 40%. More critically perhaps, the biggest and ever-swelling number of undecided voters are among those who voted AKP in the previous elections in 2018.
Erdogan’s foes, though, should not rush to celebrate. “Turkey is enduring soaring living costs, a relentless crackdown on civil liberties and a public health crisis, which would be enough to unravel most Western governments,” said Michael Daventry, a UK-based journalist who runs the Turkish politics website JamesinTurkey.com and analyzes Turkish polls. “These figures show Turkish voters clearly hold the [AKP] responsible for their hardship but aren’t convinced that opposition parties provide the remedy. And crucially, far fewer voters blame President Erdogan himself — he still commands enough trust for now to win any snap [presidential] election," Daventry predicted.
Correction: April 20, 2021. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Turkey was first in the world in terms of COVID-19 cases per capita.